George Formby Senior was born in 1875, in Ashton-Under-Lyne, as James Booth, the illegitimate son of an illiterate working class mother. Some months after his birth, his mother married, but the marriage turned out to be turbulent and violent, and the young boy was frequently ill treated and half starved. In later life, he remarked ‘My childhood was the most miserable that could have happened to any human being.
Not surprisingly, James Booth ran away from home at the earliest opportunity, and as a lad of thirteen, started his stage career in the rough pubs and ale-houses around Wigan, as the soprano half of ‘The Brothers Glenray – the songbirds of the Music Halls.’
For three years the duo made a meagre living by singing sentimental tear-jerkers to the hard audiences of the Midlands and the North. By 1892, The Brothers Glenray had escaped from tap-rooms and free and easies and were now appearing in real music-halls – far from the top of the bill, but none the less, in regular work, until their voices started to break and they got more laughter than applause for their vocal harmonies.
As audiences seemed determined to laugh at him James Booth decided that they might as well laugh with him, so The Brothers Glenray parted and he adopted a folio of comic songs adapted from Methodist hymn tunes, grotesque stage make-up, and a new name. The name came to him while he was seated on a draughty railway platform waiting for a train to take him to his next engagement. He idly noticed a goods train passing on the opposite platform, with the wagons labelled to FORMBY, the small town on the outskirts of Southport. He liked the name, and ‘George Formby’ he became until his death twenty-four years later.
At first, bookings were few, but George Formby gradually built up a following as a droll dry comedian. His material was simple he had four or five basic costumes, all more or less clown-like, and in between songs he would do little more than come to the front of the stage to chat to the stalls as if talking over a pint in the bar of the local pub. His personality was engaging and his audiences loved him. In 1899, George met and married Eliza Hoy, who became the mainstay of his life. She encouraged him to keep on trying whenever he got depressed; supported their young family by dressmaking when bookings were low; and provided a happy and fulfilled family background. Liza was just the prop he needed to go outside the provinces and attack the big management's in London.
When George Robey saw Formby working in Manchester, soon after the marriage, he liked what he saw and recommended the young comedian to the manager of the London Pavilion. From the time of his first London appearance in 1899, George Formby was a star. As his audiences became more metropolitan, George emphasised the role of the provincial semi-imbecile...'’Good Evening, I'm Formby fra’ Wigan I’ve not been in England long’.
When not boasting of his feats as a Palatine Casanova, he could be heard as a shop-worn man about town describing the valiant and heroic events that occurred on his bacchanalian rampages. Two fine examples of this latter persona can be heard on the records, ‘Did You See The Crowd In Piccadilly’ and ‘Looking For The Mugs In The Strand’, both from his 1916 revue, ‘Razzle Dazzle’ at the Alhambra.
George Formby first made records in 1907, for Louis Sterling’s cylinder company, and he was one of the first artists not to be overawed by the complexities and restrictions of the recording studio. Some artists found it hard to come to terms with performing to an invisible audience, and gave only pale renderings of their numbers, the attack and sparkle with which they delighted thousands at the Empires and Palaces just was not there. Not so with George, he took it all in his stride.
Having finished his song he would go closer to the horn and confide to the listener that "These machines are very awkward to put ‘em down. I’m just talking now so as to waste time while this record’s going through, because I’ve nowt else to say at all. There’s a chap behind me who’s recording this, and he’s opened a little trap door and he’s told me that we’ve only got a quarter of a minute, so I don’t think we can get anymore in now. Let me know when I’ve finished and I can go home" George Formby drove himself hard throughout his career despite a constant battle against ill health.
The years of poverty and neglect in his childhood had left him with a harsh rasping cough, which he would work into his act whenever he had an attack on stage. ‘I’m coughin’ better tonight’; he would say and plug his favourite patent medicine, ‘Zambuk’. At other times he would explain it away as ‘It’s not the coughin’ that carries you off it’s the coffin they carry you off in!’ the audiences loved it, not realising that George was all ready fatally stricken with tuberculosis.
While playing in pantomime in 1918 and 1919, he had to leave the cast due to his agonising chest complaint. He usually managed to come back, but during the run of the 1920/21 Christmas show at Newcastle, he collapsed. Liza took him back to their home in Stockton Heath, Warrington, but despite her careful nursing, he died on Shrove Tuesday, 8th February 1921. Towards the end of his career, George sang a song entitled ‘I’m Not Quite So Daft As I Look’ - he wasn’t. He left over £21,000 and his date book was filled solidly for the next five years.